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Interesting Investments: Diving for Pearls

What’s the best way to make a profit on pearls?
Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.
Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.

We already dove (ahem) into the world of gemstones, but let’s look at a specific jewelry staple: the pearl.

Jewelry

We’ll get the boring part out of the way. Yes, you can invest in jewelry, such as a strand of Mikimoto Akoya cultured pearls or Chanel costume jewelry, both of which go for more than $1,000.

The problem is that you will need to wait for the items to appreciate, which could take time. Due to the brand recognition, they will hold value, but it’s still a long game. If you do decide to invest this way, it’s important you know what pearl you are getting.

Non-white pearls tend to command higher prices than white pearls, as they are scarcer. For example, a black and gray pearl necklace Christie’s sold in 2015 sold for just under a staggering $5.1 million USD, setting a record. While it did have four strands, a one-strand natural pearl necklace — with white pearls — sold in 2009 for £16,875 (about $23,466 USD at the time of this writing).

Very few non-white pearl pieces of jewelry have been put up for auction in the last half century, but when they are, they go for high prices.

Taking the Dive

So, what’s the best way to make a profit on pearls? Don’t invest in them. Invest in the equipment needed to hunt pearls.

Technically, you could dive with just a loincloth, like the Japanese ama did for 2,000 years, until the 1960s. Now, they wear a mask, fins, and a wetsuit, at most.

If you aren’t an ama, that list is the very least you will need. Pick an appropriate wetsuit for the water conditions you’ll be in, use a mask to see clearly, and if you aren’t wading, using fins to help you swim. You will, of course, need some skill in swimming. If you aren’t close to the surface, or intend to stay down for a few minutes, invest in SCUBA gear, as well, and get certified.

Next, depending on where you are hunting, you might need a permit. For example, a permit for musseling in Tennessee is $244 for a resident and $1,220 for a non-resident. The state provides about 80 percent of mussel exports from the US, but only about 1 in 10,000 mussels will have a commercially viable pearl — which we’ll get to in a moment. Another popular pearl hunting location is the Ohio River, but you can look for pearls anywhere you can find mollusks.

This means you might be wading in a shallow river instead of diving. You’ll still want a mask and wetsuit, to see clearly and keep warm, but a SCUBA tank and fins will not likely be needed.

You can also hire a company to take you to an area known for having naturally occurring pearls, or to a pearl farm. An interesting aside about these, depending on the country, there may be different equipment. For example, in Dubai, you wear a cotton hoodie and baggy trousers, traditional diver wear to protect against jellyfish stings.

If you are on a guided expedition, a trained professional will help you shuck the mollusk, likely an oyster. If you did your own dive, it’s time to get a shucking knife and do it yourself. There may be local regulations for sizes of oysters or mussels that can be used for commercial purposes, in this case obtaining pearls.

The Pearl

Finding a pearl is only half the battle. The pearl may be baroque, meaning not a perfect sphere, which means it’s basically worthless.

Pearls are graded on size, shape, color, luster, surface quality, and nacre quality. Bigger is better; the more spherical, the better; colors depend on what kind of pearl; more light reflected is better; smoother, non-marred pearls are better; and thicker, more opaque nacres — the iridescent coating on the outside of a pearl — are more valuable. Also important are whether the pearl is natural or “cultured,” meaning from a farm, as well as how well it matches other pearls used in the piece of jewelry. The more alike, the better the overall quality of the piece of jewelry. If your pearl ranks well in all categories, you could have a very valuable pearl on your hands, well worth the time and effort.

Of course, if you want a low-effort way of getting pearls, you could simply buy a box of mussels or oysters, but where’s the fun in that?